Sagrada Familia and the genius of Gaudi

Not all the photos, descriptions and guidebook texts could prepare me for the wonder of Sagrada Familia, the most famous church in Barcelona, maybe even Spain, maybe even Europe. The most imaginative and creative one, that is for sure.

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I always thought that what makes Sagrada Familia so special is its exterior, with countless waves, undulations, details and towers. With its stunning facades that tell a complex story based on the Gospels, full of symbolism, deep spirituality and technical solutions that were never before or after Gaudi seen in architecture.

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From afar, facades of the temple look like rugged surfaces full of knots, but walking closer to the church, the ruggedness turns into details, ornaments, sculptures, splashes of colors. And while scaffolds still cover parts of the temple and the sound of construction works interferes with the spiritual impression, the fact remains that this building is unlike anything else in the world.

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The architect’s intention was to construct a building noticeable in the surroundings, and he definitely suceedeed: with its height of 172,5 meters, Sagrada Familia is one of the tallest religious buildings in the world, a church that appears like a mountain, situated in Barcelona’s flat central district of Eixample. Stylistically, the temple was based on Gothic and Byzantine architecture, but Gaudi added to it such idiosyncratic style and expression that the familiarity only appears distant. The strongest influence on his style, however, was Nature:

Anything created by human beings is already in the great book of nature.”  (A. Gaudi)

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Exterior of the Sagrada Familia could be described, analyzed and compared for days, but it is the interior of the basilica that, at least for me, made a visit to the temple a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I expected the vastness and height, but I wasn’t prepared for the impression of an enchanted forest full of incredible shapes, high pillars spreading and dissolving onto a spectacular ceiling, mystical colors created by massive stained glass windows. The effect of seeing the great nave for the first time is hard to describe.

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Sagrada Familia is the most colorful religious building I have ever seen. Gaudi’s intention was to use light almost as an architectural element, and by letting it into the interior to emphasize the size of the building and its architecture:

“Color in certain places has the great value of making the outlines and structural planes seem more energetic.” (A. Gaudi)

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The result is magnificent – the monumental interior is bathed in light, and feels simultaneously light and open and structured and firm. Every change of the weather outside magically changes the colors and the atmosphere within. At the time of our visit to the basilica, the weather outside was partly cloudy and constantly changing, creating differently hued scenes in the interior, bathing the space in blues, greens, yellows and reds, changing nuances and atmosphere from one moment to another. The building felt alive, organic, warm and safe, a place we wouldn’t want to leave.

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By a serendipitous chance, we entered the temple precisely at noon, when the church bells began tolling, which additionally emphasized the memorable introduction into the fantastic space that overcame all of our senses. At first, a feeling of clear physical dizziness, through wonder and awe as we took in details and tried to grasp the entire space, ending with a feeling that switched its focus from the church towards ourselves, an introspective and deeply personal feeling. We spent a long time in the temple, sitting and marveling the architecture, experiencing the changes of weather and atmosphere through stained glass windows, surrounded with like-minded visitors going through different stages of “taking in” the Sagrada Familia.

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Gaudi worked on Sagrada Familia for 43 years, from 1883, when he took over its design, to 1926 when he died. Through his work on the temple, Gaudi proved himself as a visionary, a revolutionary and a deeply spiritual man who honestly lived his religion and transcribed his visions and feelings into his architecture. He created a spectacular building which is, regardless of its size, very human, tame and recognizable, for which he intended to be the place where people will get closer to God, but in a way previously unseen in history of architecture. He studied, explored, took notice and cared for even the smallest details of his work, for the harmony of colors and elements, for their natural shapes and volumes, for the architectural, sculptural and decorative elements of the building. The excitement and belief in his work can be seen in the words he once said to his collaborator, as he was leaving the site of Sagrada Familia Temple:

Come early tomorrow, for we shall do very beautiful things.” (A. Gaudi)

Gaudi’s genius is evident in every tower, every spire, every detail and sculpture of religious figures, animals or mysterious items, and he is still there, buried in the crypt of the basilica, his spirit overseeing the continual work on the cathedral.

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Since Gaudi’s death, work on the Sagrada Familia has been continued by numerous architects, sculptors, designers and construction workers. What started as a great work by a genius artist is now a joint endeavor which lasts for five generations. The work is continually going on with a sense of excitement and belief that it will be completed. And justly so: we owe it to the great Gaudi, as a society and as his followers, to finish the masterpiece of Sagrada Familia and to get the chance to enjoy all the beauty and splendor of its completion.

“It is not a disappointment that I will not be able to finish the temple. I will grow old, but others will come after me. What must be always preserved is the spirit of the work; its life will depend on the generations that transmit this spirit and bring it to life.” (A. Gaudi)

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